The atrium of the Guggenheim is usually a bustling space, filled with crisp light and crowds of visitors. You wouldn’t have known it from the scene yesterday, as the museum opened its long-awaited James Turrell show: saturated in shimmering cobalt light, visitors quietly sprawled around the space, gazing up at Turrell’s “skylight”.
The piece is called Aten Reign, and it’s been nearly a decade in the making. 70-year-old Turrell — whom we discussed earlier this week at length — has spent years working with fabricators and curators on the piece, which stretches down from the circular skylight at the top of Wright’s spiral dome. The tube is made primarily out of fabric stretched tightly across a series of steel rings. Meanwhile, the museum's curving balconies have been covered in a more opaque textile and ringed with shimmering, multi-colored lights. Every 60 seconds or so, the lights shift from one shade to another. The change is almost imperceptible, until you’re suddenly immersed light the colour of coral, rather than the deep Yves Klein Blue it was a second ago.
The name of the piece refers to Aten, the ancient Egyptian name for a deity represented by the sun disk, worshipped during the reign of Akhenaten, in the fourteenth century BC. The reference makes sense in a literal way, since Turrell has transformed the atrium in a layer cake of glowing disks, but also in a figural one: the piece was hugely expensive to install — it necessitated closing the museum for a time — and it's hard to imagine another artist who could command that kind of power in the art world.
Speaking to a captivated audience, Turrell was fascinatingly unpretentious about his work — which, admittedly, can be tough to quantify with words. “Someone once asked me what my favourite colour is,” he said. “That’s kind of like asking what your favourite note is. You need them all.” Music is an apt metaphor, and Turrell picked up on it, going on to compare his art to an instrument: what a guitar is to music, a skyspace is to light. “It’s simple, really,” he added.
See Aten Reign — along with four fascinating early works, in the Guggenheim’s side galleries — until September 25. And if you're not in New York, check out the Guggenheim's newly launched app, which includes a handful of nice interviews and videos about the piece.